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Safety Leadership

Safety Leadership: Transforming leadership

How leaders create high-performing safety cultures

May 1, 2013

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Early in my career, I worked with a leader who was incredibly influential in safety. Mike would attend safety meetings regularly, stop employees to chat about safety and challenge others in their thinking. When I asked about his leadership, Mike said he hadn’t always been like this. It started with a 2 a.m. phone call.

At the time, Mike had just sent his daughter off to college, so a late-night call jolted him awake. But this call wasn’t about his daughter; it was about an employee who had been pinched by a forklift. “He says he’s okay,” the caller said, “but we’re going to get him checked out just in case.” Relieved but unable to go back to sleep, Mike dressed and went to the hospital. As he walked in, he saw the employee’s mother overcome with grief. The employee had suffered internal injuries far worse than first thought, and the doctors were not able to save him. “I first recognized the relief I had felt when I answered the phone and it wasn’t my daughter. And I realized then that I hadn’t done everything possible to improve safety, and I would have to live with that for the rest of my life. I vowed to change.”

As Mike would tell you, that realization was only the beginning. A deep emotional commitment is the first step toward great safety leadership. But by itself, that value doesn’t change how people do their jobs or think about risk. The work begins in learning how to translate conviction into action.

Learning to influence

For many leaders, becoming good at safety requires learning how to do things differently. A well-intentioned leader will talk to employees about zero injuries. An effective leader will recognize that the zero goal probably looks very different in the rush at the front line than in the boardroom and knows that he or she won’t get anywhere without establishing a commitment to employees first. The difference is transformational leadership.

Transformational leaders change other people’s behavior through influence, not power. My ability to influence, inspire, challenge and engage people comes down to my ability to change the way employees view me (Am I credible and trustworthy?) and the way they view themselves (What am I capable of? What are my own convictions about safety?). Transformational leadership plays out in many places, but has its natural home in interventions – when leaders approach employees who are doing something that needs correcting – or reinforcement. To develop a more transformational style, a leader needs to ask:

What do I want this person to think about me? In other words, what are my intentions in this discussion and how do I want to convey them? Perhaps I want the person to see I am committed to his or her safety, or perhaps that I don’t know exactly how to do this right, but I’m never going to walk past anything that could hurt someone.

What do I want this person to think about themselves? Transformational leaders engage – they don’t lecture. This question helps elicit the employee’s own emotional commitment to safety (e.g., Do I want her to see herself as an example – or as someone capable of more?).

What do I want that person to say to others about our interaction? The reality is that few leaders can have meaningful interactions with everyone. It also is true that the discussions we do have will be relayed to others. Thinking about how this discussion will be relayed to others helps me frame a positive takeaway that lives on past this one event.

Becoming a transformational leader takes time and practice. This is where the emotional commitment comes in. It start us on the journey to great leadership, and sustains us as we learn what it means to look out for each other’s families in the way we would want others to look out for our own.

Jim Spigener is a senior vice president with BST. Spigener advises senior leaders around the world on how to leverage their roles to improve safety performance. In addition to his expertise in leadership and safety change initiatives, he is a highly sought-after speaker, delivering speeches to numerous audiences every year.

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